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Moving Forward After Mosul: ISIS in Iraq, Syria, and the World

NOTE:  this piece was written and submitted for publication on July 13, 2017; however, too much time has passed since it was submitted and too many publications have said things that are too similar for this to be published as it normally would.  Now, it is published here, so that it is not simply lost and stranded within email inboxes.


Mosul has fallen.

This ancient city has now been reclaimed by Iraqi forces -- with Western help -- and returned to its people from the hands of the Islamic State (ISIS).  With a notably triumphant Iraqi government and highly visible celebrations of this destruction-laden military success, it may appear that ISIS is heading toward serious and permanent defeat.  However, assuming this battlefield achievement is as important as it first appears would be wildly dangerous.

ISIS is an intriguing fusion of concepts, principles, strategies, and tactics, as it is simultaneously a terror organization, an insurgency (both local and global), an ideological/theological movement, and a self-proclaimed traditional state.  Much of the present analysis seems to be focused on the fall of Mosul as a loss of territory, presuming that such defeats mean the same for ISIS as they would for traditional states.  However, due to the multi-faceted nature of the organization, a loss of territory represents no ultimate defeat or failure.

At present, ISIS holds territory -- in the exclusive, sovereign-territory sense -- primarily in Syria and, on a lesser scale, in Iraq, Libya, and elsewhere.  The emphasis of the Iraqi government remains on fully routing ISIS from all Iraqi territory it still holds, while the primary external focus is now shifting toward removing the group from its various Syrian strongholds.  The former is far easier than the latter, particularly given the complexities of operations within Syria, but the primary strategic military objectives are remain clear.

Despite this clarity, underlying facts and principles of the developing situation seem to have been forgotten, particularly in terms of what truly defeating ISIS will require.

First, and foremost, the reclamation of Mosul has demonstrated -- along with the wanton destruction in Syria, by all parties -- that physically removing ISIS from cities will require massive, coordinated efforts that produce few positive outcomes.  Although the territory may no longer formally be held by this terror group, it has been destroyed in the process, which can now be identified as part of a demonstrated pattern.  It should be assumed that all territory in Iraq and Syria reclaimed from ISIS will be a defeated, deflated, and deconstructed shell of its former self.

Second, it must be understood that -- as a group that began and, in many ways, remains an insurgency within the states it partially occupies, at present -- the loss of territory for ISIS simply means it will transition from self-declared sovereignty back to an insurgency.  While the terror group may no longer control or operate this reclaimed territory, ISIS can -- and likely will -- continue its operations.  When freed of the domestic, logistic, and bureaucratic burdens of statehood, these fighters can continue fighting in an urban environment, just as they have:  in the shadows, without uniforms, and intermixed with the civilian population.  The lack of a visible presence does not, and will not, equate to a true lack of presence.

Third, ISIS has long since bifurcated its interests, splitting its efforts in Iraq, Syria, and Libya from its global inspiration and execution operations.  As such, it is highly unlikely that their global operations will be affected by their loss of physical territory:  with a few simple pieces of software, an internet connection, and a willing audience, the terror attacks throughout the world can easily continue, by virtue of the virtual.  Even if ISIS loses the ability to train, equip, and deploy fighters to regions beyond their current theatre of actual operations, their ability to inspire attacks will remain.  In fact, such global operations may even increase, as the group’s primary focus shifts from the defense of territory to attacking the territory and people of other states.

Fourth, although ISIS is currently the preeminent terror organization and the general point of focus, it will not be so forever.  As with al Qaeda before it, ISIS will eventually be reborn or replaced, leading to yet another struggle with yet another group that developed while attentions were focused elsewhere.  The key to decreasing global terrorism -- particularly the small-scale attacks easily deployed in any city worldwide -- is preventing the growth of large-scale terror organizations.  Such an effort is not predicated upon preventing their acquisition of territory, although this remains important, but, rather, preventing the spread of related ideologies:  if the thoughts and ideas of a group cannot inspire others, then they have no followers to direct.  As always, this remains a difficult and fraught endeavour -- one still being explored in its relative infancy -- but it is of the utmost importance.

Fifth, and finally, the war against ISIS, its allies, and its successors is not strictly a military campaign.  It is -- in summary -- a global counter-terror, socio-political, cyber, ideological, theological, economic, and psychological operation on a global scale.  Without the pursuit of such a multi-faceted, multi-domain strategy that seeks to prevent and mitigate terrorism -- in all its forms and from all sources of inspiration -- this fight will continue far beyond the fall of Mosul, Raqqa, or the Islamic State itself.

As battlefield operations against ISIS continue to minimize its territory and restrict movements, there must be an expectation that its fighters and operators will simply fade into the background of the local populations.  It would be exceedingly unexpected if the retaking of physical territory would prove to be the end of such an ideological and shapeshifting organization; therefore, all efforts must be attuned to these facts, in order to prevent further future disaster.  So as to avoid the appearance, in hindsight, of negligence or recklessness, aspects of the anti-ISIS campaign that exist off-battlefield must not be ignored.

On Digital Citizenship

NOTE:  this post is in response to a public request from the Obama Foundation for ideas, thoughts, and more on the subject of digital citizenship, "what it means to be a good citizen online," how to foster a better online environment, etc.


If the internet and its future derivatives are to continue to play ever-larger roles in the lives of modern humanity, enhance the human experience, and enrich (in all senses) the experiences of all involved, then some things clearly need to change.  The inherently open nature of the internet, with its built-in preference for semi-anonymity, have created a world where so-called fake news influenced the 2016 American Presidential election and daily influences the thoughts of millions, cyberbullying has become a serious concern for certain age groups and demographic sectors, and social media has developed into a vehicle for personal attack, the distribution of propaganda, groupthink, and worse.  Any simple assessment of the state of the citizen-facing digital world indicates disorder and chaos that threatens to undo all the good this platform serves, to say nothing of the increasing threat of actual cyberwarfare.

If unnecessary anonymity leads to the undertaking of abuse and the worst behaviors found online, then the problems of anonymity must then be solved.

 

Anonymity

By 2017, the value of unnecessary anonymity can be seen in the clear results strewn about Twitter, the comments sections of any newspaper/blog article or YouTube video, and various online communities.  Very little of the content produced by these anonymous persons requires anonymity and a notably distinct portion is clearly abusive in one fashion or another.  By comparison, however, the interactions of individuals on platforms more tangibly tied to their real identity -- such as Facebook, LinkedIn, or a variety of online communities organized around a profession -- are much more civil.

For decades, anonymity has been a central tenet of digital culture despite a noteworthy lack of any factual justification for this inherent centrality.  Perhaps now is the time to begin to question this longstanding premise.

Since it is exceedingly rare for persons who deeply intertwine their public, private, and professional identities -- such as academics -- to behave in wildly different behind a keyboard than in front of an audience, this may be an important aspect to pursue.  By connecting the online activities of an individual with their actual identity -- even if only partially -- it seems a reasonable expectation that their behaviors would then typically conform to basic societal norms, as in offline environments.  When reputation matters, behavior can be expected to improve, especially when that reputation is recorded, tracked, and easily cross-referenced.

This is not to say that online anonymity should be completely forsaken, as there will always be a time and a place for important, difficult, or fragile interactions that should not be immediately or easily tied to an individual's identity.  Anonymity provided in the context of social media platforms or certain online communities, however, does not seem to produce enough of these interactions to justify the serious dedication to anonymity.  In fact, when discussing the issues of cyberbullying -- either direct or through organized attacks -- this anonymity within such communities is a well-known facilitator.

Put simply, the worst impulses of humanity should no longer be provided an identity-free delivery vehicle.

 

Solving the Problems of Anonymity via the Private Sector

One option for solving the problem of anonymity can be easily implemented within the private sector with only one minor change to social media and online communities:  private identity verification.

In this solution, each user of a social media service or online community would be required to verify their actual identity -- privately, quietly, and securely -- behind-the-scenes with the service provider or host, by simply providing a scan or photograph of a legally valid, government-issued identification document.  Nothing else would have to change:  usernames, links, and activities would all remain the same as the individual prefers.  However, each user would innately understand that their activities could be easily linked to their actual identity, if necessary.

By requiring each user to identify themselves with each provider or host, the users would likely feel a certain amount of pressure to behave more in accordance with standard societal norms.  In the event that illegal activity were to take place, the issuance of a warrant to the provider or host would then quickly produce the actual identity of the user and make them subject to any applicable legal frameworks.  When engaging in activities that truly require anonymity, the user would have the option to flag it as such, internally with the provider or host, thereby permitting a different and more protected response -- subject to a review of legitimacy -- to the receipt of a warrant.

 

Solving the Problems of Anonymity via Digital Citizenship

Another option for solving the problem of anonymity could be implemented, with some initially difficult preparations, at the level of government:  digital citizenship.

It seems likely that governments may soon be offering a digital form of citizenship to coexist and intertwine with traditional citizenship -- something Estonia seems to have already recognized -- and this digital citizenship can provide an answer to relevant socio-cultural problems.  If countries were to issue digital identification and authentication processes, alongside an enhanced passport and other standard services, this digital identity could be employed within many contexts other than government.  Moreover, by linking online identity and real identity -- as already discussed -- a behavioral change is likely.

Such a process -- also previously, and briefly, discussed --  would issue a unique email account (such as "brady.kyle.robert@citizen.usa.gov") that could be used as internet-wide identity authentication, similar to the present ability to login to services with a Google, Facebook, or Twitter account.  There would be no need to provide any identity information -- such as name, birthday, address, or government identification numbers -- because a service provider or host could simply query the government system for permission to access this information.  More important, however, is the existence of a truly authenticated identity that doesn't require the provision of private information or government identity documents to private sector entities.

In cases where anonymity would be necessary, the same protocol could be employed:  an internal flag for anonymity placed on a specific activity, with specific and reasons reasons identified, and in accordance with certain protocols.  Again, this anonymity flag would be subject to a review of legitimacy by the provider or host, in order to ensure no illegal or abusive behavior is occurring anonymously.  No government would have access to user data without a proper warrant, since all activity data would still be stored by providers and hosts, so the existence of a government-authenticated identity does not affect or jeopardize the use of legitimate anonymity.

 

Conclusion

There are many problems to be solved, quickly, if the digital world is to remain valuable and free.  However, by addressing an underlying and fundamental problem -- anonymity -- that often permits and perpetuates improper, disruptive, or illegal behavior, the digital world would be one substantial step closer to safe, secure, and socially normalized.  The solutions outlined in this post are not going to be easily accepted by all and they would have some difficulty in their implementation, but this does not degrade their importance.

If the issue of needless and abusive anonymity is not soon solved, more draconian and invasive frameworks may be implemented by governments around the world.  It is, therefore, in the best interest of all involved to collaboratively discover and implement a suitable solution before this occurs.  And such a solution, while difficult, will only enhance the experience and utility of the digital world. 

Kyle R. Brady

Publishing Note: "Insurgency and Counterinsurgency in the Modern Era: Forms, Framings, and the Future"

My latest postgraduate paper for King's College London ("Insurgency and Counterinsurgency in the Modern Era: Forms, Framings, and the Future") is now out:

Over the course of the past few decades, the world has seen far more insurgency than could ever have been imagined.  Although insurgencies have now inextricably merged with the efforts of terror groups and evolved alongside the quick pace of technology, the very idea of a major modern power facing an insurgency would have seemed quaint only two decades prior:  while failed states occasionally saw civil wars and weak states insurgencies, they were easily quarantined and not a concern of the major powers.  However, in 2017, there exist countless insurgencies -- both traditional and global -- that present a variety of threats to a variety of actors, most surprisingly to Western states.  After over a decade of active military engagements in Afghanistan and Iraq, and many years elsewhere, insurgencies both traditional and global thrive.  The pertinent question, then, is clear:  can and should major military powers avoid counterinsurgency in the future?

Go take a look, either in PDF or at Academia.edu!

Kyle R. Brady

Quarterly Review: June 5, 2017

This is the first in a series I'm calling Quarterly Review:  every three months, I'll be posting a review of all that I've published over that period.  This collection of publications will ensure nothing gets lost and provides an opportunity for some reflection-at-a-distance.

For this Quarterly Review, I'm starting from January 1, 2017.

Peer-Reviewed Articles

Opinion Articles

Postgraduate Papers

Kyle R. Brady

Publishing Note: "Beware the Limits of Hard Power in 2017"

My latest piece -- "Beware the Limits of Hard Power in 2017" -- is now out in Small Wars Journal:

In the first four months of 2017, the use and threat of American military force (hard power) has substantially increased, while diplomatic and socioeconomic efforts (soft power) have been notably marginalized, with little concern for the appropriate mix of the two (smart power). Under the Trump Administration, this reliance upon hard power can be seen in his generally aggressive rhetoric; his budget proposal that provides increased funding to the Department of Defense while severely decreasing funding for the Department of State and related efforts; his positioning of top military leaders in non-military, civilian leadership positions; his framing of the evolving situations in North Korea and Iran; his willingness to grant more autonomy to the military in their overseas operations; his interest in using the military to disrupt and prevent terrorism; and recent developments in Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan, and elsewhere. Quite simply, President Trump seems to hold the view that most of the problems of the United States can be solved through military power, even when other courses of action may produce improved outcomes.

Go take a look!

Kyle R. Brady

Publishing Note: "On a Modern Form of Terrorism: Small-Scale and Self-Contained"

My latest piece at Small Wars Journal is out now:  "On a Modern Form of Terrorism: Small-Scale and Self-Contained."

The recent vehicle-based terror attacks in London and Stockholm have been noted as much for their devastation and chaos as for its low-tech approach to terrorism. At the core, these attacks are predicated upon a very simple premise: drive a regular civilian passenger vehicle through crowds of people in a very public, high-profile, and undefended area -- colliding with as many individuals as possible -- with some form of knife-based or small-arms attack afterward, if desired. As devastating and chaotic as these are, this is not a new form of attack.

The problem, however, is that this form of attack is so simple and effective. These attacks can be executed with very little planning, no training, no funding, and no preparation, which makes them quick, easy, and deadly. Given the simple and self-contained nature of these attacks, there is very little law enforcement, the intelligence community, or even the military can do: when a future terror actor decides to undertake this effort, they simply don't raise any red flags that would trigger various forms of government surveillance or contact.

Go take a look!

Kyle R. Brady

Publishing Note: "Considering the Iraq War, Iraqi Oil, and American Interests: an Assessment"

My latest postgraduate paper for King's College London -- "Considering the Iraq War, Iraqi Oil, and American Interests: an Assessment" -- is now out, available via PDF or on Academia.edu.

Abstract:

As the United States struggled to cope with the terror attacks of September 11, 2001, President George W. Bush sought to publicly lay blame and prepare a counter-attack.  The targets of this counter-attack were quickly identified as Osama bin Laden, al Qaeda, and the Taliban -- all located within Afghanistan -- despite initial concerns that other states, including Iraq, may have played a role.  However, by early 2002 and despite ongoing military operations in Afghanistan, Iraq was again on the minds of both the American government and the American people:  weapons of mass destruction were allegedly possessed by Iraqi President Saddam Hussein.  Beginning with the earliest discussions of confronting an Iraqi threat, it was posited that an interest in this state as a security concern was, instead, an interest in the oil fields and reserves found within its borders.  To date, many well-considered positions on the Iraq War present oil as a major, if not central, motivational factor.  In order to assess such a position, the goals, objectives, and outcomes of the war must be understood, as well as the basics of the Iraqi state.

Go take a look!

Kyle R. Brady

Publishing Note: "Framing and Assessing the Counter-Terrorism Efforts of the United States between 2001 and 2011"

My latest paper for King's College London -- "Framing and Assessing the Counter-Terrorism Efforts of the United States between 2001 and 2011" -- is now out via PDF and at Academia.edu:

Following the terror attacks of September 11, 2001 in New York City, the United States endeavored to both provide an overwhelming response to those determined culpable and prevent future attacks. Although the initial goals and targets of this counter-terrorism campaign were limited, this quickly changed. Over the course of a decade, two American Presidents, and multiple elections, the United States became an international fighting force seeking to combat terrorism in seemingly any location and through a variety of means. The first ten years of these counter-terror efforts -- 2001 through 2011 -- is essential to understanding the modern state of affairs.

Go take a look!

Kyle R. Brady

Closing "Reads" and Starting a New Project

Update (2017-04-05 08:15 EDT):  Reads is gone and I've decided not to pursue Project Reads.  This concept will stay dormant for awhile, perhaps indefinitely.

----

As of today, I've closed Reads and removed all of the content:  what was formerly at http://reads.kyle-brady.com and on Twitter @KRBreads no longer exists.

However, this is because I'm converting what began as a personal project into a more universally accessible open source academic research transparency project.  This is known as Project Reads.  For now, however, there isn't much to share.  This conversion/creation process may take a few months.

Stay tuned!

Kyle R. Brady